Fishermen sue over Klamath River water

Sept. 26, 2002 at 9:10 PM
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PORTLAND, Ore., Sept. 26 (UPI) -- The tug-of-war over the limited supply of water in the Klamath River continued Thursday in the form of a lawsuit filed by environmentalists and commercial fishermen who alleged that the government's allocation of water for farm irrigation was devastating the river's salmon population.

The lawsuit filed in federal court contends that the flow in the Klamath has been reduced to the point that the water has become too warm for the salmon currently migrating upstream to successfully spawn.

"We are in the first year of the federal government's 10-year plan for the Klamath, a plan that killed thousands of juvenile fish this spring -- and now, thousands of adult fish (are dying) as they return to spawn," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA). "We will not just stand by and let the Bureau of Reclamation kill these fish and our way of life."

The drought-stricken Klamath region has been the scene of a battle between environmentalists who fear salmon populations are being steadily squeezed out of existence, and farmers in the Klamath Basin who oppose any attempts to reduce their allocations of irrigation water in order to provide more water for the fish.

According to the environmental suit filed Thursday by the PCFFA and Earthjustice, the government is required to protect the Klamath coho salmon because it is listed as a threatened species. The plaintiffs contend that the National Marine Fisheries Association failed to include any such protections in its review of the Bureau of Reclamation's 10-year water plan for the region.

A major requirement for protecting salmon, environmentalists contend, is keeping enough water in the rivers so that they flow fast enough. When water levels are low, the rate of flow falls and causes the water to be heated by the sun to above the 60-degree level that is considered healthy for salmon.

While some of the growers and their supporters see the conflict as man against lowly fish and pedantic bureaucrats, the newly filed lawsuit brings a human element to the other side of the coin by bringing up the financial impact of the crisis on the $80 million Klamath-related fishing industry.

"In spite of more rainfall, salmon actually have less water in the river this year than during last year's record drought," averred the PCFFA's Glen Spain. "Why should farmers have all the water they need while coastal fishing-dependent communities and fishing families wind up with dead fish and dry rivers?"

The PCFFA called the Klamath a "shadow" of its one-time status as one of the top three salmon habitats on the Pacific Coast and blamed the decline on government-sponsored irrigation in the arid Klamath Basin, which covers southern Oregon and part of northern California.

The farmers, however, argue that they have made a yeoman effort to conserve water and should not have to face ruin in order to ensure that the Klamath and its tributaries have enough water to accommodate the salmon. Their position has been heard sympathetically by the Bush administration, which last spring dispatched the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to Klamath to, amid great fanfare, open an irrigation floodgate that allowed water to stream into the canals after a review of the area's water situation led government scientists to conclude that supplies had increased just enough to cover the needs of both fish and man.

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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